By the middle of next month an estimated 150,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen will have deployed in the Persian Gulf region and be ready for combat if President Bush decides to launch a military attack on Iraq.
The buildup comes as United Nations weapons inspectors continue their work in Iraq ahead of a much anticipated report they are to present January 27 to the U.N. Security Council. American military analysts continue to disagree on the question of whether force will be needed to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Military experts say the best time to launch an attack on Iraq is between mid-February and early April to take advantage of the cooler temperatures during late winter and spring in the Middle East.
Pentagon officials say if President Bush orders an attack, about 250,000 troops would be needed, which is about half the number that fought in the 1991 Gulf War. Military officials say, however, the initial assault could begin with an even smaller force, backed by large numbers of U.S. warplanes.
As the U.S. military buildup accelerates, Bush administration officials insist the president has made no final decision on using military action to disarm Iraq.
The president of the Middle East Policy Council, Chas Freeman, said, however, there are a number of influential officials inside the Bush administration who are determined to have the United States lead a military coalition against Baghdad.
"They argued in the beginning that if Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that would justify invading Iraq," he said. "Then they argued that if he denied having weapons of mass destruction that would mean he was lying and therefore we would be justified in invading Iraq. Now they argue that because the inspectors can not find weapons of mass destruction that means they are so well hidden that the only way we can find them is if we invade Iraq. And one has to say, more likely than not, given the determination of this group and the influence they have in our government, we will invade Iraq."
Frank Anderson, the former chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Near East and South Asia Division, disagrees. For him, the United States could very well enjoy what he calls "victory without war" in its efforts to disarm Iraq.
"I will stick my neck out a little. I really do believe it is the most likely outcome of the next few months," he said. "By placing forces who are ready to go to war with Iraq - not just credibly threatening but really credibly creating a threat to the existence of the Iraqi regime - the rational thing for the Iraqi regime to do is to disarm. Rather than preemptive attack, they have the option of preemptive surrender and that preemptive surrender could leave them intact.
Leon Hadar, the former New York bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post newspaper, now a foreign policy analyst at the Washington-based Cato Institute, said there are widely differing views about how Iraq and the Middle East will change in the wake of a possible war, with some analysts predicting disaster and others expecting positive results and a flowering of democracy.
"An Iraqi federation of Arab Sunnis and Shi'ite and Kurds based on Western and liberal principles. Trickle down democracy, secularism and pro-Americanism that would transform the entire Arab world and help bring peace between Israel and Palestine. A new age of stability, democracy and prosperity under American influence," he said. "On the other side of the debate there is a mirror image of sorts, call it the apocalypse now scenario, including a bloodbath in Iraq, the rise of the Arab street, collapse of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and another 1973 oil crisis."
As the U.S. military speeds up deployment of troops and massive amounts of equipment to the Persian Gulf, the potential timetable for launching a war against Saddam Hussein is still not clear.
U.N. weapons inspectors say after they present their initial report to the Security Council later this month, they will still need several more months or perhaps as much as a year to finish their work.
President Bush has not set a deadline for Iraq to disarm, or for inspections to yield results, leaving analysts free to wonder if force will be necessary to end the standoff.